Parsing it Out: Sacrifice or Duty?


Diana Trautwein -Parsing it Out3

What is it that makes a sacrifice truly sacrificial? Seems to me it has to be the modifier chosen for this month’s theme at SheLoves—willingness. I’m not sure that one idea can ever be successfully separated from the other, to tell you the truth. Choosing to give something up for the sake of someone else is what makes a sacrifice real. If the giving-up is not chosen, but forced—by pressure, either external or internal—then it becomes a demand, a duty or an expectation. And that is not the same thing at all, is it?

Learning how to parse out the difference between a choice and a demand is one of the hardest parts of our journey toward becoming mature, loving, insightful and empathetic human persons. I have spent a good portion of my later adult life trying to peel away the multiple, nuanced layers of my own story, looking hard at the motivations behind a lot of my choices over the years. This business of learning to own your own crap is hard work!

The most central piece of the story for me is my long and complicated relationship with my mother. I’ve written about the last decade of our journey together in multiple places on the internet, including here. The hard, sad loss of this once vibrant woman is filled with pain and sadness, yet even this last stage through dementia has shed some light on who she is, on how her childhood both nourished and scarred her and how those scars had an impact on me. The act of writing things down has involved some hard, deep work and none of it has been easy. My mom was the very best mom she could be, loving me and my brothers well, providing care, concern, fun, beauty, color and laughter for us all. I am deeply grateful for her and to her and love her very much indeed.

But she was far from perfect. No big surprise there, right? There has only been One person to walk this earth in perfection—the rest of us muddle along, wounding and being wounded, falling and getting up again. Just today, in the midst of her confusion, I heard these kinds of phrases: “I’m trying to be a good girl.” “I hope it’s not my fault.” “I think I did it right.”

Breaks. My. Heart. These are the wounds of early childhood, worming their way to the surface of a 95-year-old, deteriorating brain, even when nothing else she says makes any sense whatsoever. How can this be?

From about the age of seven, my mother took on the responsibility of protecting her mother from her father, who was given to binge drinking and playing ultimate x video poker at the local gambling hall. Mom cleaned up his messes, stood up to him in her 7-year-old righteous indignation, and worried over her younger brother and sister. She had an older brother, too, but he was the crown prince of the family and apparently could do no wrong. It fell to mom to be the family guardian and watchdog.

And she passed that message, that burden, that responsibility . . . but not that sacrifice . . . to me when I was about seven. “Daughters take care of mothers,” were her words and they came right into me, body and soul. I’m here to tell you that age seven is way too young for anything to be ‘chosen.’ Instead, the act of care giving becomes part of your very DNA. Seven-year-olds are not, and cannot be, willing participants. Assumptions are made, expectations are parceled out and burdens are borne.

But for too many years, none of that was what I would call a willing sacrifice.

Today, many years of life and therapy later, I choose to take care of my mother. Not in my home, but near it. Not with all of my life, but with part of it. One of the lovelier parts of this evolution has been to watch my mother realize the unfairness of the expectations placed upon her, and to catch glimpses of the way she did the same thing to me. It’s a complicated process because we have all loved each other very much; great gifts have been passed down through the generations along with all those misguided expectations.

So today, as I left her sitting in a row of wheelchairs parked in front of a television set, knowing that she is winding her way down to the end of this long life, I told her she is beautiful. I thanked her for being such a good mama, and I promised I’d be back again tomorrow.

I choose to go back tomorrow. I want to be there. Yes, that means making a special trip, giving up a little time, probably brushing her hair and getting her a bit of juice to drink. It involves checking in with the nurses and the new hospice team that is supervising her care. But you know what? It is a sacrifice I offer with great joy and greater gratitude.

Yes, I am willing. And somehow, that truth makes all the difference.